Dressed in singlets and jandals, they tried to douse the flames using buckets and towels.

Tales of bravery emerging from Australia's worst bushfires since Black Saturday also highlighted a lack of public appreciation of the dangers.

At least 20 homes on the outskirts of Melbourne are thought to have been destroyed - the latest warning of what can happen when expanding cities intrude into dry areas.

Unlike farmers whose livelihoods are at risk from fire, families in newly built commuter suburbs are rarely prepared for - or expect - the worst.

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Bushfire researcher Jim McLennan has conducted interviews in fire-affected communities since 173 people perished on that horrific day in 2009.

And what the psychologist discovered left him pessimistic about the future. "In general the people who have come from a more inner-city environment do not understand themselves to be at risk from fire," says McLennan, an adjunct professor at Melbourne's La Trobe University. He has given the condition a name: "bush blindness".

"I wish I had $10 for everyone who has said to me some variant of, 'nah, never thought about it.' For a hell of a lot of people there's this notion that bushfires ... happen somewhere else, to someone else and they watch it on TV."

Research estimates bushfires are now 20 times more deadly and 80 times more destructive than a century ago. As urban sprawl continues to spread, and Australia gets hotter and drier, experts fear the situation will only get worse. Melbourne's population alone is predicted to rise from today's four million to more than 6.5 million by 2050.

"We are increasingly putting ourselves in harm's way," city planning expert Alan March said recently. "There are millions more living in these risky situations."

When McLennan began his work for the government-funded Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre he thought community education was key. But the threat from bushfires appeared "way down" an average family's priority list. Despite the introduction of stricter planning and building requirements, McLennan believes local and state governments remain "reluctant to put barriers in the way of development" in fire-prone areas.

But he does retain optimism in one area - the low number of deaths in recent fires. "We are not seeing the terribly sad loss of life with people stupidly trying to defend undefendable properties. They are now more likely to get out."